The unsung hero in the “paper wars”

PDF Association staff // November 10, 2014


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Cover of AIIM's 2014 Paper Wars reportWhile its tendrils reach into BPM (Business Process Management) and IM (Information Management), the ECM (Enterprise Content Management) industry is rooted in a specific mission: overhauling paper-based business processes with information technology solutions.

The fundamental rationale for investing in ECM is the idea (and proven reality) that costs may be reduced and processes may be streamlined. Beyond running existing processes better, faster and cheaper, the ECM community promises entirely new ways of understanding and managing activity based on the metrics and other data that emerge from digitized content.

This perspective underlies AIIM’s latest publication: “Paper Wars 2014: an update from the battlefield”. AIIM is the industry association at the heart of ECM. Since the 1940s the organization has supplied studies, standards, training and research to help vendors and customers understand how to effectively manage their documents and related content.

AIIM’s latest update on the paper wars is well worth reading, but for advocates of paper-free business it’s fairly depressing. A few key statistics beg for notice:

  • Although paper use is decreasing in 46% of organizations, it’s increasing in 25%
  • Half of respondents (and this is to an AIIM survey(!)) still print documents for review, meetings and for signing
  • While 44% of invoices arrive in electronic form, only 8% of these are routed directly to content management systems
  • 67% of organizations have made less than 10% progress towards their own objectives for becoming paper-free

AIIM tends to focus on processes rather than technology. This makes sense for the records and information managers who make up the bulk of the organization's membership. For ECM vendors, however, there’s a different way to read AIIM’s latest report – as a judgment on their collective failure to leverage a powerful, universally accepted technology in the fight the paper wars.

When it comes to the specific question of replacing paper in business workflows the technology implications of AIIM’s report may be read in the following way:

  • The Portable Document Format (PDF) is accepted as the ubiquitous, general-purpose replacement for paper
  • Many attempts to replace paper with electronic content have stagnated on using PDF as an electronic way of conveying a document that’s most commonly printed by both sender and receiver!
  • Although everyone accepts PDF, very few ECM vendors leverage the many capabilities of the format. For example, although PDF is heavily used to convey invoices, to-date, the format’s ability to include machine-readable data embedded in the human-readable page has been ignored
  • Although PDF provides rich, standardized functionality in areas critical to digitization (digital signatures instead of ink, markup annotations instead of notes scribbled in the margin, and so on), the ECM industry continues to treat PDF as functionally equivalent to the TIFF images produced by document scanners

It takes the smart application of technology to win battles in the paper wars. Here, AIIM’s Standards Program has played a quiet but critical role. Unsung, and almost unknown to most members, the Standards Program fostered the PDF/A (archive), PDF/UA (accessibility) and PDF/E (engineering) specifications and managed the transition of PDF itself from an Adobe Systems proprietary technology to an open ISO standard.

For ECM vendors, AIIM’s “paper wars” report should prompt a few considerations:

  • The key areas of “hangup” for paperless processes (invoicing, review, signing) identified in the report are also areas in which PDF offers rich (if underutilized) functionality
  • PDF is a well-established non-proprietary standard supported by thousands of vendors worldwide
  • Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the TIFF-based legacy and invest in the paper-replacement people already accept, trust and use

ECM vendors (and their customers) can learn how effective use of PDF is the big gun in the paper wars at PDF Day in Washington DC and New York City.


PDF Association staff

The staff of the PDF Association are dedicated to delivering the information, services and value members have come to expect. Staff members of the PDF Association include: Alexandra Oettler (Editor), Betsy Fanning (Standards Director), Duff Johnson (Chief Executive Officer), Matthias Wagner (CFO & Operations Director), Peter Wyatt (Chief Technology Officer), Thomas Zellmann (PDF Evangelist).  


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PDF Association staff

The staff of the PDF Association are dedicated to delivering the information, services and value members have come to expect. Staff … Read more